Cortado Ventures
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Cortado Ventures

CORTADO VENTURES

Investing in Hard Tech for Industry 4.0

Cortado Principal Susan Moring writes about our conviction backing companies innovating in hard tech

Big thanks to Susan for researching and writing this content.

When you think of high-tech, venture-backed startups seeking to take their companies “to the moon”, software companies get a lot of attention. Hardware startups are often overlooked by venture capital — margins are typically lower than software companies as manufacturing operations come with more employees, higher overhead, and can be vulnerable to things like the current global supply chain disruption. At Cortado Ventures we lean into this often overlooked and underfunded area, where we have experience and the Midcontinent region has natural advantages.

Cortado has backed hard tech before — portfolio company Drov is building IoT devices to prepare for the future of autonomous trucking, and PipeDream Labs is designing robots that will deliver packages through a network of underground pipes.

Now we’re announcing two more recent investments in hard tech companies, Exum and Access Optics, that we believe have the potential to capitalize on current trends and disrupt their industries. What do all of these hard tech companies have in common? They have outstanding engineering teams building products for large and expanding addressable markets. Read on to learn more about our newest hard tech investments and the theses behind them.

Exum — Denver, CO

Rethinking analytical tooling, starting with an innovative desktop mass spectrometer, the MassBox.

What is mass spectrometry?

Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique used to identify what basic elements are present in a sample of a material by measuring the mass-to-charge ratio of charged particles. Specific historical applications of mass spec include drug testing and discovery, carbon dating, food contamination detection, and more.

Traditional mass spectrometry

If you’ve ever toured a research laboratory, you’ve probably seen devices like those pictured below. Traditional mass spec devices are large machines that require significant maintenance and are often so complex that they require a PhD level scientist to operate. These characteristics mean that often labs and companies will forego having their own device on site and instead rent time on a machine at a core facility or even send samples out to external labs for testing and analysis.

Figure 1: Traditional mass spectrometry devices in academic research settings. Clockwise from left: UC Boulder, South Dakota State University, UMass Amherst

Meet The MassBox

Exum’s MassBox is a desktop mass spectrometer that brings high-performance, solid-sample chemical characterization out of the traditional laboratory environment. Here are just a few of the benefits of the MassBox over traditional mass spec options:

  • Small size (2’x2’x2’) enables analysis to be done in house or in the field (or, perhaps, on an international space station 🛰️)
  • Proprietary LALI (laser ablation laser ionization) technology enables mass spec on any solid state samples in a single device. Previously PhD chemists would need to either cobble together multiple complex machines or transform their solid material into a liquid before analysis. Both approaches largely increase measuring time and make quantification of results incredibly difficult.
  • Better quantification results across the entire periodic table of elements
  • By implementing intuitive scientific processes, the user experience becomes as easy as using an app on a phone. Anyone can access and quantify what’s in their material to reduce cycle times and improve QA / QC and R&D.
Figure 2: Exum’s MassBox

Why Now?

While the existing market for analytical tools is a large one ($6B a year spent on mass spectrometers alone[1], with the broader analytical tools market worth upwards of $90B[2]), there is a significant new market opportunity in growing industries where companies need to know what’s in their materials but have never had the talent or capital to manage their own in-house device. The Massbox changes this, democratizing solid sample analysis for both existing and new markets. Recent growth in two specific beachhead markets make it an ideal time for a company like Exum to get traction.

  • Battery testing — EV sales have surged in 2021 — sales increased by 160% in the first half of 2021 and are on track to surpass 5 million units this year.[3] With the astronomical growth of EVs and other green energy markets comes the need for efficient quality control among battery manufacturers. With the MassBox, battery manufacturers can now quickly analyze samples to make sure the lithium is properly distributed throughout the battery without having to send them off for testing and wait several days for results.
  • Additive manufacturing — Another quickly growing market that can benefit from efficient solid-state mass spec is additive manufacturing (the industrial production name for 3D printing), a $12 billion market expected to quadruple by 2030.[4] Exum’s MassBox will enable in-house analysis of batch materials and end products for medical, aerospace, and other manufacturing use cases.

Access Optics — Broken Arrow, OK

Hiding in plain sight — the thriving 20-year-old optics manufacturing company in a Tulsa, Oklahoma suburb.

Figure 3: Access Optics Founder Bob Hogrefe a few of their precision optics products

Intro to Access Optics

Spouses Bob and Pam Hogrefe founded Access Optics just over two decades ago and the company has become one of the top precision micro-optics manufacturers in the United States. Access Optics makes lenses as small as 0.5mm in diameter for medical, industrial, and defense applications. Their devices are incorporated into diverse end products such as endoscopes, spectroscopy equipment, and spec-ops cameras. Their products can even be found in the premier surgical robot, the da Vinci Surgical System from Intuitive Surgical.

Figure 4: A da Vinci Surgical System (left) and an up-close view of Access Optics products in an advanced single-port surgical robot.

Why Now?

So what is a 20-year-old manufacturing operation doing with venture financing? The answer — preparing to capitalize on a well-timed opportunity for outsized sales and market growth in the coming years. Three significant market trends make this a prime time for Access Optics to invest in new equipment and a robust sales team:

  • Access Optics’ base business in minimally-invasive surgery will rebound with exceptional demand for endoscopes, endocouplers, and cameras as elective surgeries, deferred during COVID-19 are resumed.
  • A new generation of wearable devices like AR/MR/VR glasses is moving from the drawing board to the market fueling the need for micro-sized, highly precise optics and assemblies. Access Optics’ investment in state of the art manufacturing equipment will position it perfectly to address these requirements.
  • The transition to disposable endoscopes. According to a recent analysis from healthcare services company Vizient, the increasing cost-effectiveness of single-use endoscopes will lead to significant market growth (16.9% projected CAGR of disposable endoscopic devices between now and 2028) in an industry with 75 million procedures a year. Single use endoscopes reduce the chance of infection transmission between patients, which can cost a hospital up to $45K per endoscope-associated infection.[5] With years of relevant design and manufacturing experience and top-flight quality credentials, Access Optics is perfectly positioned to introduce single use imaging subassemblies and proprietary devices for the single use market.

Each of these opportunities is further driven by a major market trend among OEM customers toward US-made products. Access Optics is one of the few domestic options for medical and defense customers looking for certified (ISO, FDA, ITAR, etc.) micro-optical products. We expect to see a continued trend of U.S. companies focused on eliminating supply chain disruptions by shifting to domestically made components and end products from certified manufacturers.

Summary

At Cortado we look for outstanding teams capable of providing outsized returns in large and growing markets. Exum and Access Optics are hard tech companies that fit the bill with their innovative products, engineering and manufacturing expertise, and ability to capitalize on current market trends. Follow Cortado on LinkedIn and Twitter for ongoing updates on Cortado and these two recent investments.

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Nathaniel Harding

Nathaniel Harding

Managing Partner for Cortado Ventures and Young Global Leader in the World Economic Forum. Investor and advisor for tech startups, building a better future.